Valdivia Team’s Ascendancy Means End Of The Road For Travis-Miller

Choosing to do so without citing cause, the San Bernardino City Council on May 29 fired City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, conferring on her a $307,941.56 severance as she headed down the road.
Though no cause was cited, the ostensible reason for her departure that was provided for public consumption was that the budget she had recommended to the council last year and which was approved without any dissent, missed its revenue generation mark by $7 million.
While the narrative that her error in significantly overestimating revenues is what led to her demise has widely circulated, in actuality her departure had more to do with her having backed the wrong political horse in last year’s mayoral derby.  Quietly, though apparently not quietly enough, Travis-Miller had militated in the back room to assist incumbent Mayor Carey Davis in 2018. Davis had been challenged by six candidates in the June 2018 Primary, including then-Councilman John Valdivia. Valdivia and Davis had proven to be the top vote-getters in June and faced off against one another in the November final. Valdivia edged Davis, 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent. In the city’s Second Ward, Sandra Ibarra, a Valdivia ally, proved victorious, as did Theodore Sanchez, who is Valdvia’s cousin, in the First Ward. Given Valdivia’s preexisting alliances with incumbent council members Henry Nickel and Bessine Richard, Travis-Miller found herself in a precarious position, as her ill-advised support of Davis had placed her on Valdivia’s radar screen. Indeed, on December 19, 2018, the very day that the newly elected city council was installed, the ruling coalition that Valdivia was striving to assemble took a run at Travis-Miller. Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, in her first major act as an elected official, on that night asked her colleagues to consider evaluating Travis-Miller’s performance. The council acceded to the request and a special meeting of the council was scheduled for Friday morning, December 21 at 10 am, at which the council was to hear public input before going into a closed session to carry out, according to the agenda a “conference with labor negotiators” with the Valdivia representing the city regarding what the agenda said was an “unrepresented employee: city manager.” A second special meeting of the council was scheduled for the same day, commencing at 6 pm. On that agenda was another session of public input to be followed by the council adjourning once again into a closed session to, “Discuss and take action on termination of employment agreement with the City Manager Andrea M. Miller without cause.”
That meeting and its subject matter were curious, given that Travis-Miller’s contract states, “The city manager shall not be removed during the 60-day period preceding or following any city election for membership on the city council or the office of the mayor, or during any 60-day period following any change in membership of the city council or the office of the mayor, except upon unanimous vote of the mayor and the city council.”
At both of the morning and evening public input sessions, residents weighed in with regard to the advisability of terminating Travis-Miller, with some lauding her talent and performance while advocating that the council keep her, and others voicing criticism of her comportment as city manager and recommending her firing. The council adjourned into the evening closed session, with Travis-Miller’s fate hanging in the balance. They emerged some two hours later, having taken no reportable action, a signal that there was not, at that point, sufficient will among the six council members to cashier the city manager, as neither Richard nor Nickel nor Councilman Fred Shorett nor Councilman Jim Mulvihill were yet ready to pull the trigger on Travis Miller. Nevertheless, a message had been sent to Travis-Miller. On January 5, the 61st day after the November 6 election, Travis-Miller was clearly in jeopardy.
Several further closed session evaluations of Travis-Miller ensued. As neither Mulvihill nor Shorett were inclined to oust Travis-Miller and the Third Ward council position formerly occupied by Valdivia which he had resigned from to accede to the mayor’s post remained vacant, the votes of Richard and Nickel were crucial to form the council majority that would hand Travis-Miller her walking papers. Neither seemed willing that early in the formation of the new council to bring down the axe on the city manager. At the April 3 council meeting, during closed session, based upon a motion by Sanchez  to suspend Travis-Miller, Councilwoman Richard came across to join with Sanchez and Ibarra to formerly initiate action to move Travis-Miller out of City Hall. Councilmen Mulvihill, Nickel and Shorett opposed the motion, resulting in a 3-to-3 deadlock. Valdivia, who under the city charter possesses no voting authority but does have the power to veto 4-to-3 and 3-to-2 votes and can break a tie, used the latter prerogative to support Sanchez’s motion. Travis-Miller thereupon left City Hall, never to return.
She was not immediately fired, however, and at that point, her fate was not entirely sealed. Yet to be determined was who was to replace Valdivia as Third Ward councilman. A mail-in contest for that post was held, with the deadline for posting set for earlier this month, on May 7. The two candidates in that race, Treasure Ortiz and Juan Figueroa represented a referendum on Travis-Miller. Figueroa was heavily backed by Valdivia’s political machine. The expectation was that he would provide the deciding vote on the council to get rid of Travis-Miller. Ortiz, a one-time city employee, was more  favorably disposed toward Travis-Miller. Her election, it was presumed, would end Travis-Miller’s suspension and extend her tenure as city manager at least another year-and-a-half.
In the last three years of Davis’s run as mayor, Valdivia’s primary ally on the council had been Nickel. It was widely assumed upon Valdivia’s victory in November that the outcome represented an advancement for Nickel as well. Nickel had vied unsuccessfully in that same election as the Republican candidate for Assembly in the 40th Assembly District, losing out to Democrat James Ramos, whose personal wealth as a member of the San Manuel Tribe virtually assured his victory in that race. Nevertheless, despite that setback at the polls, Nickel’s political fortunes seemed to be relatively bright, as he was poised, as a member of the Valdvia team, to prevail on issues and policy votes at the municipal level in a way that would strengthen him for 2020 and beyond.
Valdivia’s move to consolidate power so quickly after the November election, however, which included the move to immediately behead Travis-Miller, did not sit well with Nickel. His unwillingness to go along with Valdivia’s agenda at the accelerated rate that Valdivia expected damaged what heretofore seemed a solid and mutually beneficial political partnership.
When the mail-in votes that had arrived by May 7 were tallied, Figueroa was overwhelmingly out in front of Ortiz. With the arrival of the final votes over the next several days, Figueroa’s hold on the position did not slacken and he was declared the official winner and was sworn into office on May 23.
Previously, there was reflection and expression of concern about jettisoning Travis-Miller and the expense this would entail, consisting primarily of paying her a severance that could better be used to pay the first year’s salary and benefits salary of her successor. Hence, there followed considerable speculation about the council citing cause in forcing Travis-Miller to depart, as this would absolve the city of the requirement to pay her the severance her contract specifies, consisting of one-year’s salary and benefits. A laundry list of grounds for her firing made the rounds.
This week, on Wednesday, in one of his first acts as city councilman, Figueroa adjourned into closed session with his colleagues for the first time. In seeming defiance of that element of Andrea-Miller’s contract that prohibits her from being fired within 60 days of an election to the council or the seating of a new council member, the council voted 5-to-2, with Ibarra, Sanchez, Nickel, Richard and Figueroa prevailing, along with the add-on vote from the mayor, to hand Travis-Miller a pink slip by a decisive 6-to-2 margin. The vote marked Nickel’s return to the Valdivia fold, though doubtless Valdivia will not soon, nor likely ever, forget that Nickel crossed him early in his regime.
In making the vote, the council elected not to cite cause and just bite the bullet and pay her the $307,941.56 severance she is due, consisting of her $262,542.50 annual salary and $45,399.06 in annual benefits.
Having been with the city in the capacity of city manager for one year and ten months and in the capacity of assistant city manager for a year prior to that as well as having been the acting city manager in San Bernardino in 2012 and 2013 and serving a stint as the assistant to the city manager in San Bernardino prior to that, Travis-Miller knows where a good number of the bodies are buried. Valdivia and his advisors opted not to risk giving her a reason to start trouble. Her contract states: “In exchange for payment of severance, city manager shall sign a full release, releasing city from liability for any employment claim and agrees she will not file, initiate or cause to be filed or initiated any action in any federal or state court for wrongful termination or other employment causes of action.” In essence, the city council is buying her silence.
Mark Gutglueck

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